"A central theme of the so-called fat law suits which my law students initiated - ten of which have already been successful - was that food sellers must provide consumers sufficient information to be able to make intelligent choices and accept personal responsibility for them," says Banzhaf, and several of the victories involved sugary soft drink and may have paved the way for this latest development.
The first successful fat law suit was a class action put together by his law students against McDonald's for failing to disclose important information to consumers. McDonald's capitulated after publicly apologizing to the law suits, began providing the information, and paid $12.5 million to settle the claims against it. In another law suit, the New York City School Board agreed to ban all sugary soft drinks, and most fattening foods, from its classrooms - a policy which was soon followed in other school districts.
Banzhaf himself developed a legal theory under which school boards, and even individual school board members, could be sued for entering into so-called "pouring rights" contracts - also known as "Cokes for Kickbacks" - under which schools sold and promoted the sale of sugary soft drinks and, in return, received kickbacks from the beverage industry. Faced with the threat of a law suit, at least one major school district backed down, and others apparently got the message, says the lawyer called the "Ralph Nader of Junk Food."
Then, in 2005, the major bottlers, faced with the threat of class action law suits in several states, were forced to agree to a limited ban on the sale of sugary soft drinks in schools, including promises to also provide more healthy beverages for sale in schools to students. The law suits grew out of earlier conferences on "Legal Approaches to the Obesity Epidemic" which Banzhaf helped to organize and promote, and at which the plans for the coordinated class action law suits were first hatched.
"These law suits, the pressures on the beverage industry they helped create, and the publicity they generated, appears to have played a role in yesterday's decision to provide vending machine customers with calorie counts on sugary soft drinks, and the earlier decision to include within the Affordable Care Act a requirement for chain restaurants to post calorie information nationally, just as they earlier were required to do in New York City," says Banzhaf.
"Carefully targeted legal actions can play a major role in fighting America's obesity epidemic, just as they were a catalyst - with antismoking messages, bans on cigarette commercials and billboards, and prohibitions on smoking in public places - in helping to turn the tide on America's smoking epidemic," says the lawyer "Who's Leading the Battle Against Big Fat."
JOHN F. BANZHAF III, B.S.E.E., J.D., Sc.D.
Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington University Law School,
FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,
Fellow, World Technology Network,
Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
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